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Restaurant's sign opposing COVID-19 safety measures sparks social media firestorm

A local diner and ice cream shop is getting the cold shoulder from dozens of Chippewa Valley residents after posting a sign urging people to ignore COVID-19 advice from public health officials.

Roadside Ice Cream & Diner has prompted a stir on social media by displaying a sign inside the establishment at 1160 Menomonie St. encouraging people not to wear masks, practice social distancing or take other steps widely encouraged by local, state and national officials to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.

The sign, headlined “Roadside Chatter,” indicates the advice is composed of excerpts from Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, a well-known anti-vaccination activist and author of the book “Saying No To Vaccines,” and Dr. Russell Blaylock, a retired neurosurgeon who alleges that wearing face masks is harmful to healthy individuals.

It also advises people to “understand that an asymptomatic carrier is a normal, healthy person” and not to “buy into the fear that one might ‘catch something’ from a normal, healthy person.”

Posting of the sign, in the midst of local, state and national spikes in COVID-19 cases, has spawned hundreds of comments, both pro and con, on the restaurant’s Facebook page and led a number of area residents to share photos of the sign on social media along with pledges to stop supporting Roadside. The former Dairy Queen outlet separated from American Dairy Queen Corp. in 2018 and changed its name to Roadside.

In response to a Leader-Telegram inquiry, the Robertson family that owns Roadside issued a statement Tuesday indicating that the intent of the post that drew public interest was “to simply share the information” from the two medical professionals. The statement said “Roadside Chatter” doesn’t censor information.

Regarding social media concern about the sign recommending that people stop wearing masks, the statement said: “According to Dr. Russell Blaylock, ‘a number of studies linked prolonged mask use to headaches and lowered blood oxygen levels which can weaken immune systems.’”

The statement responded to Facebook comments about the sign asking people to “refuse mandatory vaccinations” by saying: “According to Dr. Sherry Tenpenny she claims, ‘vaccines do not prevent infections but do cause disease.’ “

“Again, Roadside only offered the post for public review,” the statement continued. “Additionally, Roadside and its predecessor have maintained decades of good relations with the Eau Claire County Health Department.”

Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said Tuesday that the department has received complaints recently about Roadside and is investigating.

“We will be working with them and providing education if they need it,” Giese said, noting that practicing social distancing by maintaining a space of at least six feet between people and wearing face coverings are among the best tools society has to control the pandemic.

“Good information is critical for all of us, both businesses and individuals,” she said. “My job is to make sure that there is good, solid, science-based information and data available for the community and that they’re using that to make decisions.”

Nearly 125,000 Americans have died and 2.6 million people in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic started in December, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Hundreds of people posted comments on Roadside’s Facebook page critical of the owners’ decision to display advice that runs contrary to the overwhelming consensus of public health officials, with some vowing to take their business elsewhere.

The commenters suggested the business endangered its employees and customers as well as the broader community by promoting such views.

Several Roadside supporters, however, argued that the business owners should be free to share any opinions they want and said the problem is mask advocates trying to force others to wear them. Some of those posts complained about “liberal sheep” in the community who believe anything the government tells them.

Giese said Health Department officials have worked with business groups to establish best practices to keep customers and employees safe.

“This a community that overall has businesses that get the significance of this disease, manage it well and are motivated to do the right thing,” Giese said.

The department strongly recommends that restaurant employees wear masks, but it is not required, she said.


Hannah, left, and Levi Erickson of Eau Claire use their dollar store nets to catch minnows and tadpoles in the shallow edges of the Eau Claire River near River Prairie Park Tuesday in Altoona. They were with their mom, Jillian Erickson. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.


Business
AP centerpiece
Sunbelt states rush to line up hospital beds

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Florida and other states across the Sunbelt are thinning out the deck chairs, turning over the bar stools and rushing to line up more hospital beds as they head into the height of the summer season amid a startling surge in confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

With newly reported infections running about 40,000 a day in the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, warned on Tuesday that the number could rocket to 100,000 if Americans don’t start following public health recommendations.

Over the past few days, states such as Florida, Arizona, Texas and California have reversed course, closing or otherwise clamping down on bars, shutting beaches, rolling back restaurant capacity, putting limits on crowds at pools, or taking other steps to curb a scourge that may be thriving because of such factors as air conditioning and resistance to wearing masks.

“Any time you have these reopenings, you’re depending on people to do the right things, to follow the rules. I think that’s where the weak spots come in,” said Dr. Cindy Prins, a University of Florida epidemiologist. She warned that things are likely to get worse before they get better.

Hospitals in the new hot spots are already stretched nearly to the limit and are scrambling to add intensive care unit beds for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks.

Newly confirmed cases in Florida have spiked over the past week, especially in younger people, who may be more likely to survive the virus but can spread it to the Sunshine State’s many vulnerable older residents.

The state reported more than 6,000 new confirmed cases Tuesday. More than 8,000 were recorded on each of three days late last week. Deaths have climbed past 3,500. Floridians ages 15 to 34 now make up 31% of all cases, up from 25% in early June. Last week, more than 8,000 new confirmed cases were reported in that age group, compared with about 2,000 among people 55 to 64 years old.

Hospital ICUs are starting to fill up in South Florida, with a steadily increasing number of patients requiring ventilators. Miami’s Baptist Hospital had only six of its 82 ICU beds available, officials said.

In hard-hit Arizona, hospitals are looking for ways to cram more beds into their facilities and hiring out-of-state nurses. State officials have authorized “crisis standards of care” telling hospitals which patients should get a ventilator or other scarce resources if there is a shortage.

Dignity Health, which operates several hospitals in the Phoenix area, is converting more areas to treat COVID-19 patients and preparing to put multiple patients in private rooms, spokeswoman Carmelle Malkovich said. It’s bringing nurses from underutilized hospitals in its system to Arizona, and hiring traveling nurses and respiratory therapists throughout July.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey shut down bars, movie theaters and gyms and banned groups larger than 10 at swimming pools.

Air conditioning could be a factor in hot-weather states where new cases have been spiking, because it recirculates air instead of bringing it in fresh from outside, said Dr. Kristin Englund, an infectious-disease physician at Cleveland Clinic.

“I definitely think the air conditioning and the oppressive heat in the South is going to play a role in this,” she said.

The coronavirus has been blamed for over a half-million deaths worldwide, including about 130,000 in the U.S., where the number of new cases per day has soared over the past month, primarily in the South and West.

“I would not be surprised if we go up to to 100,000 a day if this does not turn around, and so I am very concerned,” Fauci said on Capitol Hill.

Van Johnson, mayor of the tourism-dependent city of Savannah, Ga., announced he is requiring the wearing of masks, with violators subject to $500 fines.

Savannah, population 145,000, becomes one of the first cities in Georgia to take such a step. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has largely prohibited local governments from imposing rules stricter than the state’s.

After talking with the governors of Arizona and Texas, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said Tuesday that his state will rein in previously set rules for bars and nightlife. Under the modifications, bars that had been allowed to operate at 25% capacity will be closed for in-person service if they don’t serve food.

The new round of shutdowns across the country is likely to cause another spike in layoffs.

Nikki Forsberg said she is relying on government loans to keep the Old Ironhorse Saloon, the only bar in the Texas Hill Country town of Blanco, afloat after it was closed for two months beginning in mid-March and then shut down again Friday by the governor’s order.

She said money got so tight for some of her eight employees during the first shutdown that she told them to go the bar and take whatever they needed — petty cash, toilet paper, even one of the refrigerators.

“That’s how desperate it got,” she said. “By the time we had opened back up, we had stripped the bar of all the non-liquor inventory.”

Health officials say the next several weeks will be critical in Florida. The Fourth of July, the reopening of Walt Disney World on July 11, and the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville at the end of August promise to draw crowds and create the potential for person-to-person spread.

While cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, St. Petersburg and Sarasota have mandated masks, some people in Florida have been resistant.

In The Villages retirement community near Orlando, tension has developed among residents who wear masks and those who don’t. And the split has been along political lines.

Ira Friedman, who along with wife, Ellen, is active in the local Democratic Party, said that at first, he would just make an exaggerated cough to get his point across if he saw someone without a mask. But he said he has become more vocal about it as the number of cases has grown.

“Unfortunately, we don’t find that the Republicans are following the same protocols as we are,” his wife said.

Elsewhere, the European Union will reopen on Wednesday to visitors from 14 countries — but not the U.S., which has barred most Europeans. The EU also kept its ban in place for visitors from China and from countries such as Russia, Brazil and India where infections are running high.

Americans make up a big share of Europe’s tourism industry, and summer is a key period. More than 15 million Americans travel to Europe each year, while some 10 million Europeans head across the Atlantic.

“Americans were 50% of my clientele,” lamented Paola Pellizzari, who owns a mask and jewelry shop on the Saint-Louis island in the heart of Paris and heads its business association. “We can’t substitute that clientele with another.”

Across the English Channel, things are also headed in reverse in places.

Britain reimposed a lockdown in Leicester, a city of 330,000 that officials said accounted for 10% of all new coronavirus cases in the nation last week. Stores closed their doors, and schools prepared to send children home.


National
AP
Ruling cheers religious schools backers

The Supreme Court elated religious freedom advocates and alarmed secular groups with its Tuesday ruling on public funding for religious education, a decision whose long-term effect on the separation of church and state remains to be seen.

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the high court ruled 5-4 that states must give religious schools the same access to public funding that other private schools receive, preserving a Montana scholarship program that had largely benefited students at religious institutions.

It prompted a jubilant reaction from the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump, who counts religious conservatives as a core part of his base. The campaign lauded the decision as “a victory for educational freedom,” underscoring its importance for a White House that often spotlights religious liberty.

Sister Dale McDonald, public policy director for the National Catholic Education Association, said the ruling has the potential to stem nationwide enrollment declines at Roman Catholic schools that are forcing the closure of hundreds of institutions.

“This is a chance to get public schools and religious schools on equal footing,” McDonald said, adding that the extent of change would depend on how many state legislatures opt to expand tuition assistance.

Critics assailed the decision as another in a series of setbacks for a principle with long roots in the U.S. legal system.

It is “the latest in a disturbing line of Supreme Court cases attacking the very foundations of the separation of church and state,” said Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s freedom of religion program.

Tuesday’s ruling focused on a program that offered indirect tuition assistance through tax credits rather than direct state aid to religious schools. The court left unresolved the extent to which religious schools may use public funding for explicitly religious activities, such as worship services and religious-education courses. Mach said that issue likely would be the focus of future litigation, given that many religious schools consider doctrinal education to be at the core of their mission.

Others tracking the Montana case stopped short of predicting a major expansion of state funding for religious education.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who co-authored a brief supporting the plaintiffs on behalf of multiple religious groups, described the decision as “incremental” and “building cautiously” on a 2017 case that ruled a Missouri church could use a state grant to resurface its playground.

“But incremental moves have been accumulating since 1986, and what would pretty clearly have been unconstitutional in the ’70s and early ’80s is now, sometimes, constitutionally required,” Laycock wrote in an email.

At least two faith-based organizations joined secular counterparts in opposing the ruling on principles of church-state separation, saying public money for religious education forces people to fund faiths to which they do not subscribe.

“Government funding to religious schools requires taxpayers to support religious institutions and beliefs that may violate their own, something the First Amendment was intended to avoid,” Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement.

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, contended that many of the religious schools participating in Montana’s program had discriminatory policies.

“Members of the faith should fund those religious schools, not the taxpayers,” said Laser, who is Jewish. “It would offend my religious freedom to fund a school that requires belief that Jesus Christ is necessary for my salvation.”

Another attorney who co-authored a brief supporting the plaintiffs, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty vice president and senior counsel Eric Baxter, predicted the ruling will not result in significant new funds flowing to religious schools.

“Legislatures are not compelled to provide this funding,” Baxter said, pointing to language in Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion saying most states with provisions barring aid to religious schools still let them participate in public scholarship programs.

“If they do provide this funding to the private sphere,” Baxter said of states, “then they just have to treat everybody equally.”

Institute of Justice vice president Tim Keller, whose group represented the plaintiffs, told reporters that Idaho, Texas, South Dakota and Missouri were among the states most likely to create school choice programs that include religious education.

Arizona has had such programs in place for several years, enabling Catholic schools there to reverse enrollment declines that were due at least in part to parents’ inability to afford tuition.

McDonald, of the Catholic education association, also predicted that the ruling would bring swift changes in Maine and Vermont, where parents have been able to get public funds for tuition at secular private schools, but not at faith-based schools.